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Expansion and Realignment Could Be on the Horizon for the MLB … Why?

expansion Photo via Yahoo Sports

The landscape of both the American and National league has changed dramatically since baseball moved to three divisions in 1994. Teams were added in Arizona and Tampa Bay. The Brewers and Astros both flipped into different leagues. A wild card and then a second wild card team were added to the playoff bracket.

More change could be on the horizon. According to Baseball America writer Tracy Ringolsby, the MLB could be looking to expand and shuffle the divisions once again.

There seems to be a building consensus that baseball will soon be headed to a 32-team configuration. It will lead to major realignment and adjustments in schedule, which will allow MLB to address the growing concerns of the union about travel demands and off days.

One proposal would be to geographically restructure into four divisions, which would create a major reduction in travel, particularly for teams on the East Coast and West Coast, and add to the natural rivalries by not just having them as interleague attractions, but rather a part of the regular divisional battles.

The hypothetical realignment (assuming the addition of teams in Portland and Montreal) would have the Phillies in an eight-team East Division with Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Miami, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Washington. The schedule would be shortened to 156 games, with a three-game series against every team not in your division, plus 12 games against each divisional opponent. There would be an off day each week, easing travel.

The post-season would feature the eight best teams not to win the division battling each other in a Wild Card round. The four “winners” would take on the four division winners. This would be an added layer of post-season, attractive to television rights-holders, and two more post-season teams, attractive to team owners hoping to keep attendance high in the late summer months.

The benefits are more off-days and easier travel for players, more regional rivalries, more fans experiencing the post-season, more post-season games to sell to networks, and those lucrative expansion fees!

Who could be against this?

Well … me.

I’m admittedly a baseball purist that hates radical change to the game. It took me about twenty years to get used to the three-divisional format, Wild Card, and especially the ridiculous ‘play in game.’ I’ve only recently grudgingly accepted interleague play.

If I wasn’t exactly on board with the way baseball was setup now, I DEFINITELY don’t like many of the new ideas they’re proposing.

Here are a few of my concerns.

This would be the death of the American and National Leagues

The American and National League champions have met in the World Series for a hundred years. Under the new format, that would end. The World Series would feature the best of the “East” against the best of the “West.”

The argument could be made that the distinctions between the AL and NL are blurring anyway. Interleague play has been popular, and small-ball’s been declining for years. I seem to be one of the few hold-outs that still think the difference in leagues matters though. In my opinion it’s unique among sports, and is worth preserving.

Baseball would also have to adopt uniform rules adding the designated hitter. In all likelihood the NL would finally have to remove the pitcher from the batting lineup for good.

As a traditionalist, I can’t even express how much I would absolutely hate this.

Regional baseball is overrated versus match-ups

Baseball has been pushing for more regional divisions for a while. With good reason, it would significantly cut down on travel. There is also a thinking that fans will enjoy regional rivals playing against cities near them. While 12 games against Baltimore would probably be popular, more games against regional opponents also comes at the expense of seeing other teams.

Under this plan, Phillies fans would only get to see the Mets or Dodgers for one series.

Fewer regular season games

It’s probably not a huge deal, but there are six fewer games on the schedule. Under the new proposal, there would be an off-day scheduled every week. Baseball fans holds its records in high regard, and changing the schedule again could affect how we see those milestones.

This isn’t a huge reason to object to realignment, but if I’m being honest, I’d be irritated by it.

Is expansion in the works?

I’m one of the people always complaining that there are too many teams. Years ago, I was completely on board with contracting two franchises. Baseball hasn’t expanded since 1998, the longest period in baseball history without expansion since they first began adding teams.

In his article, Ringolsby reports that there is a potential ownership group in Portland with some public money available, but Portland has been reluctant to spend money on subsidizing sports. This hesitance already caused their minor league team to relocate. Last March I wrote about an ownership group and potential stadium plan in Montreal, but nothing seems to have progressed past the “rumor” stage.

Expansion, however, seems unlikely given the stadium issues in Oakland and Tampa Bay.

The playoffs would be watered-down

Ringolsby isn’t clear on the specifics of the post-season format. The way I read it is that each regional league (East and West) would have two division winners, then would take the four next-best teams as Wild Cards. Those four teams would match-up to play each other in a one-game playoff, with the two winners taking on the two division winners in a Divisional Series, following by a League Championship Series.

This adds two more (likely pretty mediocre) teams to further dilute the post-season. Giving the sixth-best team in the league a shot at a championship moves everything toward more of an NBA/NHL model where the regular season ultimately doesn’t mean very much.

 

Maybe I’d eventually get used to all of this in another 20 years. In my opinion, having four eight-team divisions is better than eight four-team divisions. Moving to more off-days and less baseball seems inevitable due to player complaints and owners’ desire for a longer post-season to sell to networks. To be fair, Portland and Montreal are beautiful cities that would be great additions to the league.

A big part of baseball’s appeal is its timelessness though. Maybe not perfectly, but you can compare Aaron Judge and Rhys Hoskins’ numbers with Mickey Mantle’s. It’s basically the same game. Like every sport, baseball needs to change at times. However, those changes should come after serious consideration to the downsides, tradition, and the reverence to history.

I can’t help but feel like this proposal is a solution in search of a problem.

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